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16 January 2024updated 24 Jan 2024 4:44pm

József Debreczeni’s letter from the land of the dead

A rediscovered memoir from an Auschwitz survivor offers powerful lessons for our own reckonings with the Holocaust.

By Lyndsey Stonebridge

József Debreczeni’s book describing his experience in Auschwitz has been slow coming to English readers, but may well have arrived at just the right time. Debreczeni was the pen name of József Bruner. Born in Budapest in 1905, a poet, playwright, novelist, translator and reporter, he was the editor of Hungary’s daily newspaper Napló in Subotica, and then the illustrated weekly Ünnep in Budapest, before Hungary’s increasingly punitive anti-Jewish laws cost him his job in 1938. Existence in wartime for Hungary’s Jews was grim, but still just about possible. That changed with the Nazi occupation in March 1944. In May, the transportation of Jewish people to Auschwitz-Birkenau began. In eight weeks, 420,000 were forced into cattle trucks, including Debreczeni’s mother and father, and his wife, Lenka Bruner. By June all three had been murdered. In the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum there is a letter from his father, Fábián Bruner, begging a humanitarian worker for news of his wife, Sidonia. She was already dead. By the end of the war, around 560,000 Hungarian Jews had been killed.

Male, youngish, comparatively fit, on arrival at Auschwitz, Debreczeni was told to step to the right, not the left. This was the first piece of the perverse “luck” quilted throughout his narrative that saved his life, but on condition that he lived that life in hell. Left would have meant immediate death in the gas chambers. Right meant a year of slave labour in the sprawling “city” of camps that webbed out from Auschwitz. From that point on, each step Debreczeni took was a step down.

First he was yoked alongside other prisoners (Häftlings), hauling steel rail tracks. A second camp transformed the writer into a miner, and sent him further still into the underworld. With each reprieve from death, existence got lousier and shittier. Literally. Debreczeni’s final destination was one of the death “hospitals” where towards the end of the war, not wishing to be caught in the act of industrial slaughter, the Nazis left people, lice-ridden and stacked in bunks inches above their own sewage, to die of starvation, dysentery, TB and despair. (“The underworld is seething.”) These were the “cold crematoriums” that feature in documentary footage filmed by the Red Army.

After the war, Debreczeni moved to Belgrade in Tito’s Yugoslavia, where he died, aged 73 in 1978. And he wrote, steadily and determinedly, for almost 20 years: journalism, poems, translations, satires, short stories, novels, narrative non-fiction, including this book, Cold Crematorium, an “excerpt”, as the original title had it, “from Auschwitz”, published in 1950. Now, and in no small part thanks to Paul Olchváry’s meticulous and intelligent translation, we have an English edition. It’s a masterpiece.

The comparison, not one to be made lightly, is with the Italian survivor Primo Levi’s parallel account If This Is a Man (first published in 1947, and translated into English in 1958). Like Levi, Debreczeni survived slave labour because he arrived late enough to benefit from the rare bits of luck that were thrown at him. Like Levi’s, his writing is distinguished by a patient, forensic, measured attentiveness to the complex and innovative horror of the Nazi camps. Levi put his method down to his training as a chemist. A journalist and writer, Debreczeni put his faith in words. “I was never one for numbers. I didn’t believe in their magic. My measure of value has always been words.” His number was 33031. Precise, curious, questioning: the words in this book are a patiently furious refutation of the logic that turns a man into a number.

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Hannah Arendt said that what happened in the camps was an “experiment in eliminating human spontaneity itself… of transforming the human personality into a mere thing”. No attempt was made to disguise the human outrage of this endeavour. “For what purpose, may I ask, do the gas chambers exist?” the French survivor and writer David Rousset recalled this question being asked in his 1947 testimony, Les Jours de Notre Mort. “For what purpose were you born?” was the answer. “Here there is no why!” taunted a guard, snatching away an icicle Primo Levi had broken off to drink from on his arrival in Auschwitz. “Why,” asks Debreczeni, “does it occur to so few of them that they are committing a crime?”

Despair was one response to Auschwitz, disbelief another. “If one day someone writes about what is happening… they’ll be seen as either crazy or a perverse liar,” a fellow prisoner tells Debreczeni. He was right. The Nuremberg trials eschewed victim testimony from Jewish survivors for fear they would not be believed. The prosecutors also understood how anti-Semitism worked against its victims.

Debreczeni’s response was to record his experience: this happened, he says, and this is how it happened, and this happened to me, and to them. His is the mode of the dispassionate-passionate. Morally, the effect is devastating. Cold Crematorium offers rare insight into the inner workings of the Nazi industrial death complex.

The devil is in the historical detail. The slave labour system Debreczeni was subject to was the product of an innovative public-private initiative. Three “illustrious companies” leased slave labour from the Nazi state: Baugesellschaft, a construction company; George Urban AG, above-ground engineering; and the dreaded Kemna, an underground engineering company. Debreczeni is acute on the link between the ruthlessness of big capitalism and the deliberate lawlessness of the camps. The ideology that prided itself on its “total state” approach created a stateless condition within each barracks and work group, pitching each inmate against the other in a Hobbesian “state of nature”. Competition for survival was the only game in hell. “With systematic resourcefulness the Nazis created in their death camps a subtle hierarchy of the pariahs.” Elders, Clerks, Kapos: the punching down was brutal. The worst of humanity thrived, while those who considered themselves among the best were fatally corrupted. “I am not a mass murderer,” stuttered a doctor, forced to select 400 of his peers to go to an unknown destination. Hardly anyone came out of the Auschwitz work camps; even fewer came out of them well.

If Debreczeni’s book has a lesson for us today, it is about writing. Most of Cold Crematorium is narrated in the present tense. This is indeed an “excerpt” from Auschwitz and one that traps the reader in its space, for a while at least, just as surely as the author. The mind struggles to get out – from the prose, from Auschwitz – to make it all end. One rare sliver of light comes when a camp patron, hearing he is a writer, promises Debreczeni a pen and some paper:

“You can work. There are enough impressions.”

“Work? Here?”

“You can write anywhere. Think of François Villon!”

“Yes,” I replied, remembering the French poet of the Middle Ages who’d spent time writing from prison.

We never see Debreczeni pick up a pen in his text. But we know he did, because we now hold his book in our hands. This is not just “good” writing. It is writing that reclaims the experience of Auschwitz back from oblivion, and returns it to the world as a truth that can be shared. Politically, morally, historically, this is necessary writing.

Debreczeni’s writing is also relevant to the current conflict that has arisen over the meanings of the Holocaust since the war in Gaza began. The slyly cynical disbelief of late-20th-century anti-Semites has increasingly given way to open Holocaust denial. (Although perhaps even denial is better than enthusiastic endorsement of another massacre against the Jewish people on behalf of Hamas and some of its supporters.) At the other end, Israel and its allies have used the historic persecution of the Jews to help defend the extreme violence waged against the people of Gaza. This war of words has on occasions led to some positively surreal performative politics: in December, the Hannah Arendt Prize was temporarily withdrawn from the journalist Masha Gessen on the grounds of a comparison they had made between Nazi ghettoes and the open prison of Gaza.

In fact, like József Debreczeni, Hannah Arendt was a firm believer in facing up to reality, however atrocious, difficult, or unyielding. Mass extermination is the ultimate attack on reality: when a people is obliterated, so too is the reality of a plural world, she said. Everybody loses. She also thought that history and poetry can, to an extent, “undo” total destruction. Not because writing can bring back the dead, but because it restores the sense of a world made up of multiple perspectives – a world of different people, not one of mad ideologies “running amok with racial madness” (Debreczeni’s words). In other words, writing, even writing that compels us to confront the worst we are capable of – as in Cold Crematorium – endures. Right now, this can only be of little comfort. As of the first week of January this year, at least 13 poets and novelists have been killed by Israeli forces in Gaza, and at least 79 journalists. For testimony to survive, so too and first of all must its authors.

Lyndsey Stonebridge’s latest book,We Are Free to Change the World: Hannah Arendt’s Lessons in Love and Disobedience”, is published by Jonathan Cape on 25 January

Cold Crematorium: Reporting from the Land of Auschwitz
József Debreczeni, translated by Paul Olchváry
Jonathan Cape, 256pp, £16.99

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This article appears in the 17 Jan 2024 issue of the New Statesman, Trump’s Revenge